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Joe the Plumber Meets Sam the Gas Station Guy

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A few days ago (which is to say, prior to the Wednesday night presidential debate), I met Sam. Joe the Plumber should really meet Sam, too.

I was jogging away on the treadmill at my local gym when the guy next to me--who turned out to be Sam--introduced himself. He seemed to want to talk, which was fine by me. He asked what I did. I told him. He immediately replied, "Oh, I've never met a professor before. I never went to college. Seriously, in my entire life I've never read a book all the way through. Please, Professor, don't make fun of me."

Of course I wouldn't. Besides, I found Sam's humility, curiosity, and affability endearing. As Sam talked, I became only more enthralled in what he had to say. He told me his life story. He grew up in Yonkers, New York and came out to California in his early twenties. At 22 he found himself working as an entry-level cashier at a gas station. Eventually he cobbled together loans and a payment schedule and bought the station.

Cut to the future: Now 38 years old, Sam owns more than 100 gas stations in southern California and 25 restaurant franchises. He has over 800 employees working for him. He has four kids in a happy marriage. He's a devout churchgoer. He's a proud American and lets you know that.

We started talking politics. "You know what," he said, "I'd really like some reporter to come and ask me my views on the election. Why don't they ever seek out guys like me? I got something to tell them. Professor, why isn't the LA Times or somebody asking me for my opinion?"

I probed a bit. "So what is it you want to say to them?"

Sam opened the verbal floodgates. "Hey, I've always voted Republican. For the first time in my life I'm going to vote for a Democrat. I'm voting for Obama."

"Why's that?"

"My gas station businesses are hurting. I make the same profit margin--5 to 8 cents per gallon--no matter whether the price of gas is $1.99 per gallon or $4.99. The big oil companies are the ones raking in the profits when prices go up, not me. I can make money on gas only through volume sales--and if people are hurting, I make less on gas. Or I start to lose money, like now. Where I make money, though, is when they come inside and buy discretionary items--food, drinks, lottery tickets. Right now, people aren't buying. I know 20 of my gas station colleagues are about to declare bankruptcy. It's bad."

"So I'm fed up with the Republicans. Tax cuts for the rich, the war--all that stuff. The middle class needs help. I'm finally convinced. I'm going for Obama. First time in my life, I tell you."

I asked him about paying higher taxes.

"I don't care about that. If I'm making money, I don't care. I'll pay my taxes. But I'm not going to make any money if the middle-class guy doesn't have money in his pocket to buy my gas or my food. I don't need the big tax cut right now. That's not going to bring the customers into my gas stations."

Joe versus Sam. You could line up economists spouting elegant theories for each side, but the basic arguments can probably be reduced to Joe's and Sam's respective positions on very gut levels. Joe's never made $250,000, but he feels that if he ever reaches that threshold, he shouldn't be "penalized" for his success. He seems to believe that cutting taxes for wealthy individuals somehow serves his current financial interests and his aspirations for the future. Sam's already lived those trickle-down and dream-up Republican talking points but now rejects them with hard-won conviction.

Were the two of them to meet and strike up a conversation, side by side on adjacent treadmills, I dare say that Sam would be giving Joe an earful, not the other way around.

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Public Service Plug: It may be getting a little close to the wire in some places, but if you want information about requesting an absentee ballot in your area, check out the resources at Long Distance Voter.

Entertainment Plug: Yours truly appears as a talking head commentator in the documentary This American Gothic by filmmaker Sasha Waters Freyer. It will be screened at Echo Park Film Center tomorrow night (Oct. 17) in Los Angeles, at the We, The People Film Festival, starting at 7pm. If you're in the area, I hope to see you there!